Age is Just a Number was the theme for our January Newcomers Whisky Club meeting. The “Age” topic and the selection of whiskies was intended to be an exploration of No Age Statement whiskies (NAS), and to discuss some of the impacts the rising NAS trend has on the producers and the consumers. Without question, we are seeing an explosive growth in the sheer number of No Age Statement whiskies hitting the market, a shift that is reversing a decades-long trend in which Scotch whisky producers placed significant emphasis on the “Age” of a whisky as a sign of the quality, exclusivity, and superiority of Scotch whisky that only came about through the long, slow maturation these whiskies underwent. This idea of long-matured, rare, high quality malt whiskies inevitably led to higher pricing, or premiumization, the term used by the industry today, and which, for whisky fans, is very much a source of consternation surrounding these No Age Statement whiskies.
As always, there are links to the full NWC booklet in the title above and the image to the right, or you can find the document in the Club Book Archives (here).
The whiskies we sampled as part of our No Age Statement tasting were:
Auchentoshan “American Oak”
Glen Grant “The Major’s Reserve”
Bruichladdich “Islay Barley, Rockside Farm 2007”
Highland Park “Dark Origins”
Laphroaig “Quarter Cask”
Also, below is an excerpt from the NWC Booklet that takes a look at the concept of NAS and to look at some of the reasons, stated or otherwise, that, in my opinion, anyway, continue to spur this trend forward.
The Era of NAS
With this month’s whisky selection we are delving into a concept that is prompting a lot of discussion, interest, and no small amount of trepidation amongst whisky fans; that concept is movement away from whiskies with age statements and toward No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. This “Era of NAS” is seeing a major shift by Scotch whisky distillers away from the use of “Age” to differentiate products within their own portfolios by releasing whiskies of uncertain, and undisclosed, age, packaged with “clever” names and intricate marketing stories often of very dubious origin.
Why is this movement toward NAS whiskies happening? Well, a bit of history is needed to help us understand at least a couple of the significant industry issues driving this shift, a couple of which are, in fact, very closely related.
During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, whisky experienced a major boom period and, as a result, with unbridled optimism, producers rapidly expanded their production capacity. Unfortunately the boom was rather short-lived and in the 1970’s whisky began to fall out of favor with drinkers who were moving away from brown spirits and into the trendy and rapidly growing vodka segment. The whisky producers, who had ramped up production, were caught by this shift with excess capacity and huge stocks of aging whisky in a market no longer buying their product, leaving producers with vast amounts of maturing barrels of whisky, and no market. This became known as the “Whisky Loch”. The industry responded to the drastic downturn in fortunes by retracting and consolidating. And there were casualties! Over a period of time starting in the late 70’s, through the 80’s and into the 1990’s, approximately 30 Scotch whisky distilleries were shuttered, closed down and even dismantled.
Yet, as with any cyclical product subject to the whims and vagaries of fickle public interest, whisky has once again experienced a renewed popularity, particularly within the Scotch single malt whisky segment. This consumer return to aged brown spirits has resulted in rapidly increasing demand for all-things whisky. Producers are again increasing production and new distilleries are sprouting up across Scotland. But herein lies the other problem for the producers. As we know, whisky is an “aged” spirit, meaning that producers require time to mature Scotch whiskies to satisfy the legal requirements for minimum age (three years) before any new production can reach the market. This “lag” between distillation and ready-for-market whiskies makes production projections difficult, as well as slow to respond to market changes – simply because of the time (years) needed.
Whisky producers have responded to this growing demand with the introduction of more NAS whiskies, which is a step by the industry to address the market factors that are at play here; a decades-long growth in the category that is purportedly leading to a diminishing of aged and aging stocks; a perceived demand by consumers for innovation and new taste experiences; and to address the belief that whisky, and in particular scotch whisky, has been under priced for a number of years.
But let’s be honest (okay, perhaps cynical). The whisky industry is a for profit industry and if they can release “new” NAS whiskies without the restriction of having to place a specific 10, 12, 15-year old, or higher, age statement on the label …… and they can release this NAS bottling at a higher price, well, we all know how the finance people see that opportunity!
So are NAS whiskies solely about revenue opportunities? Cynics, particularly on the consumer-side, would say, “Yes”, that this is all just a ploy by the whisky producers to raise prices at the expense of their loyal customers. Producers, on the other hand, would respond that removing the age statement allows for better cask management and reduces the risk of stock build-up. Less aging reduces the risk of whisky becoming “over-oaked” or subject to bad casks, and shorter maturation reduces the loss attributed to “the Angel’s Share.”
Producers will also point out that releasing NAS whiskies, or perhaps more accurately eliminating the industry challenges associated with bottlings that carry specific age-statements, provides the Master Blender with greater flexibility in determining when a whisky is ready, as well as allowing the Master Blender to be more “creative” in developing new whiskies instead of simply trying to replicate an existing, historical taste profile.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of price changes for several entry-level bottles and their NAS siblings, including the whiskies in tonight’s lineup. You will see that not all brands are experiencing high variances between their NAS release and their “youngest” age-stated release, but many of them do show quite a change both by product and over time.
In all fairness, there are some very good, high quality NAS whiskies on the market, some with very high prices. But there are also an arguably larger number of NAS misses, and of possibly greater concern, many of these NAS whiskies carry retail prices several times higher than the price of the brand’s entry level bottlings, yet we know nothing about what is inside the bottle. And the growth of the NAS segment has a cumulative effect in that as the prices of the NAS bottlings rise, and consumers become “comfortable” with the price increase, the NAS phenomenon creates a draft-like effect, pulling the price of the entry-level bottlings up, as well. A rising tide floats all boats, right?!
The main concern for many whisky fans is the profound lack of transparency with these NAS whiskies. These new NAS releases are clouded in marketing hype, sent out into the world with weird Gaelic, or sometimes just Gaelic-sounding names, that are solely designed to invoke a non-existent heritage, convey an air of exclusivity, or to offer some other creative way to distinguish this whisky from the next. What we, the consumers, are left with is a confusion over an endless number of bottles, without any sort of cohesive, understandable approach to pricing, and then being asked to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on a bottle that contains who knows what. The ONLY FACT that we have to rely on when considering the purchase of ANY No Age Statement whisky is that the whisky in that particular bottle is at least three years old. There is nothing else available to us to determine whether this is a reasonable price for that particular whisky.
The risk associated with the trend toward NAS whiskies, naturally, is that whisky-buying consumers cease to trust the whisky producers, that they next time they are in their local liquor store they look in the next aisle and decide that Gin is their new favorite drink or cocktail component…..